The federal government announced last week that it is investigating Dallas County for how it arrests and prosecutes students who miss school. More than 20,000 children and their parents were caught up in the truancy courts in Dallas County last year, in what the Department of Justice called a “school-to-prison pipeline."
At Grady Spruce High School in East Dallas, Jacqueline Fuentes asks each teacher for a signature in every class. The sophomore has to prove that she’s been in school all day, every day the next time she sees the truancy judge. The last time she appeared in front of him was traumatic.
“It was really bad for me,” she said. “I just felt really mad and I didn’t want to talk to nobody.”
Jacqueline said that her schedule changed after Christmas break, and she was counted absent in one class while she was sitting down the hall in another class. After 10 absences, the courts were automatically notified.
“I had proof why I wasn’t in that class. I tried to tell the judge, but he didn’t listen to me,” she said. The penalty was harsh: “I got arrested for that, in front of my mom. And I felt really bad.”
The court fined Jacqueline $200, too.
One indicator that there might be a problem with how Dallas County handles truancy were the many stories of kids getting pulled out of classrooms and arrested.
“First of all the stigma attached to being arrested in front of your classmates, but then the irony of being arrested at school for missing a hearing in a court truancy case,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of the legal advocacy group Texas Appleseed.
Texas Appleseed and two other groups complained to the Department of Justice last year about how four school districts in Dallas County--Garland, Mesquite Dallas and Richardson—funneled children into truancy courts. In the complaint, ten Dallas County families shared stories of long-term illnesses, learning disabilities, or simple attendance errors that got their kids thousands of dollars in fines, and criminal records.
“What we found when we talked to families was that many times the kids may have had a defense to the claim that they were truant, but those defenses weren’t getting raised, either because the students didn’t know how to appropriately rise them, or because they had no access to appointed council and no one who could help them raise those defenses,” Fowler said.
A number of school districts across the country treat truancy as a crime, although only Texas and Wyoming do statewide. The Texas legislature is now considering bills to change the truancy laws.
Peyton Walker, a senior at John Horn High in Mesquite, was arrested at school for truancy when she was in seventh grade. Her parents were divorcing, and Peyton had crushing migraines.
“My daughter loves school. She was a good student,” said her mother Gina Walker. “She wanted to be in school, and she was upset when she wasn’t there.”
Gina and Peyton, who is 17 now, were complainants in the report to the Justice Department. By the time Peyton was diagnosed with major depression disorder and anxiety, she and her mom owed the truancy courts more than $3000.
“It seemed like we were going to court every month. We were known as frequent fliers,” Walker said.
The Department of Justice will investigate whether Dallas County has given due process to all children charged with truancy, especially children with disabilities. County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a statement that he will cooperate with the federal investigation.
In the meantime, Peyton can’t get the criminal charges off her record or get a driver’s license until the fines are paid. Her mom, on disability, doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to.
The Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice will conduct this investigation. People with relevant information can contact the department via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 1-855-258-1433.